Work and World

Harry Potter And The Translator’s Nightmare

In 1997, JK Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone. But most of her audience didn’t actually read that book. They read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone. or Harry Potter A L’Ecole des Sorciers Harry Potter va Sang-e Jadu Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal [cool humming of “Hedwig’s Theme” ] The bewitching Harry Potter books have reached readers in over 200 territories in over 60 languages. The authorized translations came from separate publishing houses with little oversight from the author. So translators were not only tasked with adapting the text from english into their target languages and cultures, but also making assumptions about Rowling’s intentions and translating the spirit of her approach. Their task was particularly challenging because the Harry Potter series is filled with invented words, alliteration, wordplay, and British cultural references. The main characters first names: Harry, Hermione, and Ron mostly stayed the same across languages, with small changes to accommodate different alphabets and phonetics. That’s easy enough for conventional names like Harry Potter. But many of the other proper names in the book carry loaded meanings — meanings that would be lost if it’s not translated. Take Severus Snape. The name invokes severity and sounds like “snake.” So the Italian translator made the jump and named him Severus Piton —which is basically python. In French, he’s Severus Rogue which means Severus “Arrogance”. As you can tell, both solutions sacrificed Rowling’s alliteration. The name “Hogwarts” combines two English words, but because the name stayed the same in most languages, those connotations were lost for those readers. In an attempt to preserve Rowling’s approach to the school’s name, the French translator used “Poudlard.” “Pou du lard” means lice of bacon or fat. The Hungarian version went with “Roxfort” a mix of the British university Oxford and Roquefort—a well known blue cheese. The house names and founders, also experienced unique adaptations in some of the target languages. In Catalan the names became: Nícanor Griffindor, Sírpentin Slytherin, Mari Pau Ravenclaw, and Horténsia Hufflepuff. There’s a ton of word play that happens in the Harry Potter books as well. The famous Diagon Alley, a play on the word “diagonally” and the infamous Knockturn Alley from “nocturnally”. This type of pun is a real puzzle for translators, and most dropped it in favor of literal translations. The Spanish translator was able to rhyme at least with “callejón diagon.” And translators had several approaches to Quidditch, an invented game made from the invented words Quaffle, Bludger, and Snitch— the 3 types of balls used in the game. In Spanish, the words were not changed. The French translator kept the word Quidditch but changed the names of the balls. And others changed the game’s name altogether. In Dutch, quidditch is “Zwerkbal.” In Norwegian, it’s “Rumpeldunk.” OWLS and NEWTS, standardized tests in the wizarding world, weren’t always able to retain their animal acronyms. But in Swedish their implied meanings remained while the wording was changed. OWLs became Grund Examen i Trollkonst or G.E.T meaning goat in Swedish. And NEWTs were changed to Fruktansvärt Utmattande Trollkarls Test or F.U.T.T. derived from “futtig” meaning measly or mean. The infamous anagram of Tom Marvolo Riddle’s name was altered by many translators to achieve the same revelation of “I Am Lord Voldemort.” In Danish, Tom is named “Romeo G. Detlev Jr.” and in French he is “Tom Elvis Jedusor” which was extra clever because “Jeu du sort” means “fate riddle.” Culturally, the Harry Potter series is unmistakably British but translating that for a global group of readers wasn’t easy. Some food items were changed to make them less foreign for the target country. Sherbet lemons, a popular candy item in Britain, became krembo, a chocolate covered sweet from Israel. Crisps became chips in the US and in the Arabic version, bacon became eggs. Sometimes a foreign setting undergoes translation too. For the Ukrainian translation, the atmosphere of an English boarding school was swapped out for an orphanage. In the books and films, Hagrid has a provincial west country accent. Hagrid: “No? Blimey Harry, didn’t you ever wonder where your mum and dad learned it all?” “You’re a wizard, Harry.” For the Japanese translations, it was replicated by using Tōhoku dialect, which is a pastoral accent from northeastern Japan. Other translators chose to have Hagrid simply speak more informally, while others dropped his accent entirely. Despite translators’ best efforts to remain true to the text some things still were lost in translation. In the mainland Chinese editions of Harry Potter there were footnotes to explain puns and cultural references. The Spanish translator sometimes used italics to signal an invented word with no translation. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re reading Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone or the many translations of it. One thing that always seems to translate is the love fans around the world share for tales of “The Boy Who Lived.”
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